Why Obama Needs to Reclaim His Convictions

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Getting to the White House was such a searing experience for Barack Obama and his closest aides that they look at the ups and downs of governing through the prism of the campaign. Passing health-care reform was right up there with winning the Iowa caucuses, and last month’s shellacking mirrored the loss inflicted by Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. There were other moments, too, when the campaign was at risk and the pundits were ready to write Obama off, and he came through to confound his critics and dazzle his supporters.

One of those moments was the Jefferson Jackson Day speech Obama delivered in November 2007 in Iowa, a tough-love call to arms that revived his then-flagging campaign. Here’s what he said: “Not answering questions because we’re afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do it. That’s why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do it. Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt [Romney] or Rudy [Giuliani] might say about us just won’t do it. If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, then we can’t live in fear of losing. [Democrats have made the biggest difference] when we led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction.”

When his campaign was going off the rails because of statements made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama delivered a bold speech about race in February ’08 in Philadelphia, confronting voter anxiety about the post-partisan, post-racial promise of America that he represented. Obama’s inclination is always to intellectualize, to keep a safe distance from emotion, but that speech rallied nervous Democrats behind his candidacy and will be remembered for its timely eloquence long after Obama leaves office.

He came through the crucible each time because he realized he would otherwise lose. Obama prides himself on being a good closer, performing best when he’s up against it, but the runway to the 2012 election is getting shorter. For his supporters, it’s painful to watch him being outmaneuvered by the Republicans as they set the agenda for the lame-duck Congress. Obama should read what he said in the campaign as he engages in a game of chicken with the GOP over extending tax cuts for the top 2 percent of earners. MoveOn.org is running ads with the theme “Bring Obama Back,” calling on the president to “be the president we fought to elect” and to hold firm on his promise to end tax breaks for the richest Americans.

The problem is that Democrats aren’t unified, and Obama lacks the 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster, so if he stands his ground, he’s likely to lose. During the campaign, Obama would look out at the huge crowds clamoring to see him and muse to aides that people were projecting too much on this guy named Obama, and he would wonder whether he could possibly be that guy. An adviser who worked on the campaign e-mailed me recently about his disappointment with Obama, saying that the president is ill-equipped psychologically for what it would take to be a hero, namely to slay a dragon: “He can’t slay anything, sadly, except the legacy of FDR.”

Those words are disheartening, but they speak for many of Obama’s supporters, who want him to quit equivocating about everything—pick a side, pick a church, pound the table at least metaphorically, and belittle the opposition the way FDR did, reacting to partisan criticism like it’s a badge of honor. Obama has got so much to work with: it’s the Christmas season, and the GOP wants to cut off unemployment benefits while they hold the rest of the congressional agenda hostage to getting the tax cuts they want. Obama wants to be above politics, but now’s the time to get in the mosh pit and play politics as though his presidency depended on it—because it does.

Obama’s policies saved the American car industry, kept thousands of teachers and first responders on the job, delivered tax cuts for 95 percent of workers, and are closing the infamous “doughnut hole” for seniors, but who would know? The GOP’s current policies for the economy will do nothing to invigorate the recovery and could stall it if they continue to block the extension of unemployment benefits to some 40 million Americans who are out of work. Everybody knows what the Republicans want; there’s no mystery. Obama is the solo operator tacking about in the hope of finding an elusive consensus. He didn’t like playing the game as a candidate, and he appears to like it less as president, but the rest of us are craving the leadership we know he’s capable of, and time is running out.

This is one of those campaignlike moments when Obama can rescue his presidency by being resolute and delivering a clear economic message that puts the opposition on notice that he’s not a pushover. It’s a chance to reclaim his convictions, and Obama should seize it.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of  Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.

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